Sunday, December 21, 2014


Simon Swain, Themistius, Julian, and Greek Political Theory under Rome: Texts, Translations, and Studies of Four Key Works. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. vi, 224. ISBN 9781107026575. $95.00.

Reviewed by Patrick Paul Hogan (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Swain states at the beginning of his new book that the studies of the four works that he treats therein "touch on politics and political thinking in general but are not in any way designed to constitute a history of Greek political literature in the Roman period" (1). This is indeed true, but his studies do constitute a good introduction to Greek political literature under the High Empire and, in so doing, illustrate some of the unusual origins of early Arabic political thought. And above all he provides interested Classical scholars not fluent in Classical Arabic access to some important texts—an important service indeed.

But first the texts themselves: in this book Swain has provided a revised text of Themistius's Letter to Julian, which survives only in Arabic, and the first English translation of it; a lightly revised Greek text of Julian's Letter to Themistius with a new English translation of the same; a new English translation of Sopater's Letter to Himerius, which survives thanks only to Stobaeus's eclectic interest, along with the Greek text; and finally a corrected text of the Letter of Aristotle to Alexander, which survives only in Arabic by way, probably, of Syriac, and the first English translation of the same. All four texts with facing translations are placed in the second half of the book following the order of Swain's studies on them in the first.

The introduction traces briefly the history of Greek kingship literature from its origins in the Classical period through the Hellenistic age, where our knowledge of the genre suffers from lack of surviving texts, to its second flowering in the later Roman Empire. Swain connects the last phase to the massive increase of potential addressees, i.e., the new Tetrarchic bureaucracy. This book also serves as a sequel, or at least a complement, to Swain's recent edition, translation, and study of Bryson's Neopythagorean treatise Management of the Estate.1 For, as Swain explains, Neopythagorean political and economic literature, much of it forged in the early Empire, played an important role in Iamblichus's revival of the letter as a medium of dispensing political advice to powerful men from local governors on up the chain of political being. His influence ran far into the fourth century. In particular, Swain argues, Bryson's treatise was the direct source of the "commercial anthropology" that begins Themistius's letter.

Swain's first chapter treats Sopater's Letter to Himerius, a fragmentary example of the epistolary mode and an imperial descendant of Isocrates' To Nicocles. The abstract guidance provided by Sopater to his brother, like that given by other advisors, is certain to frustrate scholars looking for details of early fourth century provincial administration and often on its surface seems banal. Swain, however, emphasizes that although kingship literature often resembles gnomological collections in its accumulation of exhortations to seek virtue, restrain anger, and so forth, the art lies in the selection and adaptation of well-worn adages. As he states later in reference to Themistius's letter, the "addressee and audience were not meant to find any unfamiliarity in the text" (40). Indeed, Sopater throughout shows sympathy for his brother's position as a "middle-manager" of sorts and tailors his approach accordingly, e.g. omitting all references to lawmaking. Swain documents parallels for Sopater's material in Plutarch, Dio, and others, and draws some parallels between Plutarch's Political Precepts to Menemachus and Sopater's letter here. Himerius does not have the "red senatorial boot" above his head, like a Greek πολιτικός of Plutarch's time, but he acts under similar constraints.

The centerpiece of the book is Themistius's Letter to Julian. In the second chapter Swain details Themistius's use of Bryson and argues for the letter's authenticity despite the absence of concepts familiar from Themistius's orations, e.g., the emperor as "ensouled law" (νόμος ἔμψυχος). Like in Sopater's letter, Themistius is addressing a ruler who is not a lawmaker, perhaps because Julian was Caesar at the time. Most interesting is Themistius's use of the "commercial anthropology" of Bryson, which goes beyond the standard analogy of the king as the reasoning faculty to the people as the body, and which sets out an elaborate explanation of how man, in order to satisfy his nutritive, vital, and rational faculties and fulfill bodily needs, was led to develop crafts and sciences, cities, and, in a word, civilization itself.

The annex to this chapter covers the surprising story of the survival of Themistius's letter and how it, along with Bryson's treatise, came to be a prime example of Greek political theory in medieval Islam rather than Aristotle's Politics. Swain here also explains how Nemesianus made use of Themistius's letter in his On the Nature of Man and argues for the direct use of the Greek original by Qudama ibn Jafar, its first Arabic reader.2

Swain saves his treatment of the relationship of Julian and Themistius to each other and of that between the Letter to Julian and the Letter to Themistius for the third chapter, which forms the core of the book. It is a fascinating study of what happens when the recipient of a treatise of conventional kingship literature refuses to play by the rules. As Swain argues, soon after Julian became Caesar in early November 355, Themistius sent him a now lost letter congratulating him on his appointment and engaging in some traditional hyperbole, e.g., comparisons of Julian with Heracles and Dionysus, and exhortations to an active rule. Julian replied (probably in early 356) with the cantankerous extant letter emphasizing his unfitness for rule and, among other things, explicitly correcting Themistius's readings of passages of Plato and Aristotle. Chastened, Themistius replied (probably in mid-356) with his extant letter, in which he offered general thoughts on kingship and more realistic praise of the emperor.

In the epilogue Swain summarizes his findings and takes his survey of Greek kingship literature into late antiquity, focusing on the development of overtly religious treatments of the emperor in Christian authors. Synesius's To the Emperor on Kingship represents for Swain the culmination of the genre, which was shortly to die off in the sixth century with the end of "ancient Christianity."

In an appendix Swain treats the date, authorship, and purpose of the Letter of Aristotle to Alexander, which he touches on only briefly in the earlier chapters. This work of historical fiction forms one part of "the Epistolary Novel," a collection of sixteen Arabic texts that are a distant descendant of Ps.-Callisthenes' Alexander Romance. It forms a fitting coda for the other texts, for the original author used the defeat of Darius at Gaugamela and the relationship between Aristotle and Alexander as the historical setting for a kingship treatise. Among the usual banal points one can find interesting proposals, such as the forced removal of Persians to Europe as vengeance for Persian removal of Greeks deep into its empire. Swain is unconvinced with earlier theories that connect it with specific lost works of Aristotle and instead places the date of its original Greek composition comfortably in the mid-Empire, perhaps even in the wake of the Constitutio Antoniniana. Swain notes that a contemporary of the Severans could have crafted its message, which focuses on monarchy as the only good form of government and Alexander the Great as the ideal king, and made it more timeless and safer by situating it in the past. I would add that the emphasis on the single figure of the king also makes sense in the third century CE when a destructive plurality of imperial claimants caused incredible confusion.

There are only minor cosmetic errors to report.3 Overall, Swain's book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of political theory and rhetoric in the High Empire and allows Classicists access to texts previously out of the mainstream of research.

Table of Contents

Part I. Studies:
1. The political letter: Sopater, Letter to Himerius
2. Themistius, Letter to Julian
Annex: The Letter to Julian—Greek into Arabic
3. Themistius, Julian, and Julian's Letter to Themistius
4. Epilogue
Appendix: Letter of Aristotle to Alexander
Part II. Texts and Translations:
Sopater, Letter to Himerius
Themistius, Letter to Julian
Julian, Letter to Themistius
Letter of Aristotle to Alexander


1.   Swain. Economy, Family, and Society from Rome to Islam: A Critical Edition, English Translation, and Study of Bryson's Management of the Estate. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
2.   Swain also announces (132) that he is assisting in a new edition and translation of the Arabic version of Nemesianus.
3.   Very slight typeface problem on p. 126 with <ἀξίως>.

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